“You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology – not the other way around.”
– Steve Jobs

Mint is the master of all things financial. The personal budgeting app makes managing your personal finances a cinch by automatically pulling all of your financial information into one place. Everything right in front of you – on any device.

But breaking into the wide, wide world of apps can be a daunting task – for established brands and newcomers alike. So the Mint brain trust had an idea. Why not brand the effectiveness and efficiency of the Mint app on Instagram? Through its “My Mint Moment” contest, the company encouraged the Instagram community to share photos of moments where their lives and finances aligned to make dreams come true – those “#MyMintMoment”s.

With a $1,000 prize as the carrot, Mint users were asked to stop, reflect and celebrate their life-altering moments, whether it was paying off a loan, saving for a dream vacation or knocking an item off their bucket list. And the photos rolled in – weddings, new homes, exotic vacations, etc. The #MyMintMoment initiative’s ability to inspire user-generated content drove curiosity and demand for the app by appealing to the one thing every customer shares – emotions.

According to Reevo’s “The Pursuit of Happiness: The Road to Customer Advocacy” report, 70 percent of consumers place peer recommendations and reviews above professionally written content.

Photo essays. Online reviews. Social media posts. Blogs. The strategy around user-generated content quickly is becoming one of the most enterprising tactics used by today’s brands. According to Forrester Research’s “User-Generated Content’s Impact On Brand Building” study, consumers continue to embrace ratings and reviews as key factors in their decision-making process. The study shows that 71 percent say customer ratings and reviews are important, while 76 percent are more likely to purchase a product if they see enough positive reviews.

Today’s consumers are high-tech, highly informed and intently curious creatures. They want what they want and they want it now. And they’re not shy about seeking opinions or sharing their experiences with anybody and everybody who will listen.

Holly Mason believes that consumers have always wanted to interact with the brands they have emotional connections with. They just didn’t have the means – until now. “We have more opportunities and tools to interact and connect with brands more directly (social media, apps, blogs, websites, etc.),” says Mason, owner and president of MasonBaronet, a Dallas-based integrated marketing communications firm with a strong focus on branding. “Technology has given consumers not only direct access to have a relationship with a brand, but access to more information.”

With geography no longer a barrier when shopping for new products and services, today’s consumers have everything at their fingertips. “I think this is why consumers want a connection with brands and why it’s so important for brands to create a genuine connection with their customers,” Mason says. “It’s more competitive than ever, and takes more to stand out and break through the clutter. When there is no emotional connection, consumers are easily swayed to other companies, products or services. But, when you capture their hearts and minds, they become brand ambassadors – rallying on your behalf.”

The equation is pretty simple – if you have happy customers that love your brand and are willing to be vocal ambassadors and tell their friends and family – there’s nothing more powerful. In today’s digitally-centric world, having your customers promote your brand is priceless.

“We see our customers as invited guests to a party, and we are the hosts. It’s our job everyday to make every important aspect of the customer experience a little bit better.”
– Jeff Bezos

To help celebrate “Shark Week” last year, Discovery partnered with Dunkin’ Donuts to launch a multi-channel photo sweepstake campaign, “Take a Bite, Take a Pic.” Shark fans from around the world were instructed to take a picture of themselves sinking their teeth into a shark-inspired donut, and then share it via Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag #DDSharkWeek.

For even more incentive, the best photos were featured on Discovery Channel’s “Shark After Dark” program. Viewers were encouraged to visit www.SharkWeek.com/Dunkin, to enter, and then vote for their favorite shark-inspired photo. The winning shots also were featured on a Dunkin’ Donuts digital billboard in Times Square.

The key to user-generated success lies in the tools you provide your audience.

One of the best ways to engage them is to ensure your social channels, websites and blogs are enriching their lives and providing content that’s relevant and focused on their needs. “The current generation of consumers has grown up in an interactive society,” says Joe Curcillo, a speaker, lawyer and communications expert, who also is an adjunct professor at Widener University School of Law.

With the world at their fingertips, they feel like they have the power to control the universe. Once you give them the ability to contribute and interact with your product and/or service, they will be loyal. “When someone feels like they are part of a solution, they feel good,” Curcillo says. “If they feel their concerns were addressed, they are more likely to post positive comments on Facebook or Twitter. Those posts will reach out to all of their friends, and your business or product will become desired by all the cool kids.”

Curcillo says public opinion is the best gauge of where the next demand will be found. Years ago, companies utilized futurists to determine where they would need to be in the new marketplace. Today it is a very democratized approach that allows future projections to be on the mark.

“People today can find anything on the internet,” he says. “This creates a need for information that fosters a demand for transparency. Secret formulas and guarded recipes are no longer acceptable. People want to know what they’re eating. They also want to know exactly what they’re buying, and how many other people are happy with that product. The ability to search and sort by customer reviews is certainly not an accident. The more people feel like they are in the know, have knowledge and even a hand in the business, the more they will feel inspired to spread the word. Good or bad.”

“The more people feel like they are in the know, have knowledge and even a hand in the business, the more they will feel inspired to spread the word.”
–  Joe Curcillo, Adjunct Professor, Widener University School of Law

According to Reevo’s recent “The Pursuit of Happiness: The Road to Customer Advocacy” report, 70 percent of consumers place peer recommendations and reviews above professionally written content. “When brands deliver entertainment and enrichment, they are rewarded with brand advocacy and loyalty,” Mason says. “Not only will your story go viral, but you’ll be more credible in the eyes of your potential customers and people will be more likely to give you a try.”